London’s fantastical Victorian bestiary of prehistoric creatures remains awe inspiring despite its age

A few years ago, I spent a morning in south London, looking for the beautiful remains of Crystal Palace – one of the grand feats of engineering that epitomised the Victorian era. Joseph Paxton, the renowned Victorian gardener and architect, was behind the triumph of the Great Exhibition of 1851 : it was an international world fair of a scale never experienced before, housed for 6 months inside an intricately engineered pavilion at Hyde Park. 6 million people – 1/3rd of the population of Great Britain at the time – visited the site, affectionately nicknamed Crystal Palace by Punch, London’s popular satirical magazine. Following the closure of the Great Exhibition, and with the backing of a group of investors sensing a commercial opportunity, Paxton began to erect an even grander iron and sheet glass pavilion on Sydenham Hill in south London.

The new Crystal Palace on Sydenham Hill photographed by Philip Henry Delamotte in 1854

The new, much bigger Crystal Palace was completed in 1854, and its owners, the Crystal Palace Company, capitalised on the successful model of its predecessor. The grand pavilion featured historic and art displays from times past, such as Egyptian, Roman, Greek or Medieval Courts, and showcased the fine art, sculptures, ponds & fountains with exotic plants, and monumental architecture of the past.

In addition to the courts, there were areas exhibiting marvels of science and engineering, frequent festivals, and events ranging from dog shows to tightrope walking to music concerts, and even more permanent and temporary exhibitions… The new Crystal Palace would go on to become London’s most visited attraction, until it was destroyed in an accidental fire in 1936.

Tail of an Iguanodon

At one end of the 200 acre Crystal Palace Park on Sydenham Hill, there was an entrance to a lost world. In this quieter, secluded corner of the parkland, the landscape became more mysterious, with paths leading visitors along craggy limestone formations interrupting the thick foliage. And out of this green thicket, fantastical creatures emerged, grotesque beasts the likes of which had never been seen before.

A Megalosaurus

Straddling a territory between myth and reality, the Dinosaur Court was designed to be one of the new Crystal Palace’s permanent displays, showcasing findings from the relatively new scientific field of Palaeontology. Up until the 19th century, the general public wasn’t really familiar with the extinct species today known as dinosaurs. The very word “dinosaur” had only entered the vocabulary in 1842 via Richard Owen, a known naturalist who first established the gigantic reptilian nature of certain fossils he investigated, and hence he coined the term dinosauria (from ancient Greek, horrible lizards, literally) to describe this exciting new taxonomy. Owen went on to help establish London’s famous Natural History Museum, becoming the first curator of its world-class dinosaur collection.

A pair of Teleosauri coexist with a Plesiosaur on the right

The geologic time scale was also established in the first half of the 19th century, and dinosaur fossils began to become properly identified and itemised in earnest. Victorian naturalists, fossilists, and palaeontologists soon organised in international scientific societies, pooling their knowledge and resources together to discover and identify more of these strange species. Soon, the general public became acquainted with the progress of the research, especially as the first drawings of such long extinct plants and creatures began to circulate. It was like a new world being unveiled, albeit an already lost one.

Hawkins’ Sydenham studio appearing on Illustrated London News, Dec 31 1853

By the time the new Crystal Palace was realised, public imagination had been well aware, and ever craving for more dinosaur related revelations and discoveries. It was an opportunity that couldn’t be overlooked by the owners of Crystal Palace. At their invitation, a known sculptor and natural history artist named Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins began designing a display about these mysterious and ancient creatures, broadly based on the latest scientific knowledge at the time.

A pair of majestic Megaloceri

Hawkins had worked with Paxton before, as a superintendent in the original Crystal Palace. Together, they set aside a 20 acre area on Sydenham Hill to exhibit the rapidly evolving sciences of geology and palaeontology. There were 3 distinct timelines : The Primary Epoch, dedicated to geology and strata formation. The Secondary Island, exhibiting the larger antediluvian creatures, and the Tertiary Island, where the more advanced among the lost creatures would be displayed.

A school of Anoplotheria

Using construction materials such as bricks, ceramic tiles, cement, broken stone, and iron hooping Hawkins spent nearly two years rendering a striking bestiary of over 30 creatures of various sizes and eras. To advertise the upcoming launch of his theme park, Hawkins held a one-of-a-kind banquet inside the mould of an Iguanodon in New Years Eve 1853. Here is a contemporary woodcut depicting the event. The names Buckland, Cuvier, Owen , and Mantell refer to notable naturalists of the Victorian era. Cuvier and Mantell were already among the departed by 1853 – their names are a homage rather than evidence of their participation in the banquet.

The high cost of producing the creatures led to the Crystal palace Company’s decision to stop funding Hawkins in 1855. Many of the creatures planned were never completed, while several half finished casts were scrapped. Dinosaurs had become less unusual by the time the Crystal Palace burned down in the 30s. The devastated park was abandoned thereafter, its dinosaurs soon disappearing in the unkempt foliage.   

Head of an Ichthyosaur

Based mostly on partial skeletons, early origin theories, and a great deal of conjecture, Hawkins’ creations might strike us as rather fantastical today. In our age, the discovery of fossilised finds has accelerated, while Palaeontology and other related scientific fields are much more advanced. As a result, we have a much better understanding of how such long extinct creatures might have looked, moved, or behaved, and a much clearer idea about why such creatures are extinct.

Two Labyrinthodonti, today recognised as Mastodonsauri

Indeed, some of us might have flinched at the appearance of the terrifyingly realistic CGI creations in dino films like Jurassic Park.. So we could perhaps imagine the sensational effect this primeval Jurassic Park had on Victorians, who must have been both delighted and terrified to see such imaginary creatures nearly come to life in three dimensions for the first time.

The Dinosaur Court re-emerged in the 1950s during digging for the newly established Crystal Palace Sports Complex at the former grounds of Crystal Palace Park. Part of the geology display was inexplicably destroyed at the time.. but thankfully the dinosaurs were preserved, eventually attaining the well deserved protection of Grade I heritage listing. Today, they retain a lot of their otherworldly allure, less as a scientific novelty, and more as an affectionate display of Victorian kitsch. The Dinosaur Court is an interesting landmark from the inquisitive era of evolutionary hypothesis that preceded the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species.

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